My Dream Conference: Would Someone Please Hold the Conference of My Dreams?


The last conference I went to might be the last conference I ever go to.  I do like some parts of conferences, but not all, or even most. Medical manager conferences do not seem to have changed since I first started going to them in the late 80’s.  Big sessions with big names. Little sessions with little names. The Exhibit Hall. Parties. Get-togethers. Late nights and early mornings.

I usually expect to accomplish two things during the conference.

One is to pick up some little pearl of wisdom from a random conversation that goes like this:

THEM: Blah blah blah blah.
ME: Hey, what did you just say?
THEM: Blah blah blah blah.
ME: You do that? At your practice? And it works?
THEM: Blah.
ME: How do you do that?
THEM: Blah blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda.
ME: I’ve gotta try it – thanks so much! Hey can I get your card and call you if I get stuck?
THEM: Blah yadda yadda.
ME: Yeah, great to meet you too!

The second is the brain time I get during a totally boring session when I can think without interruption about a problem I’m trying to solve.  I can reflect, scribble notes and no one cares. The phone is not ringing, there’s not a line at my door, there’s not a to-do list to do in my to-do book.  One thing I can never get enough of is time to think.  Work is full, almost every minute, with noise and interruptions and lots of people needing something.  What I need, what we all need, is more time to think.  If you never have time to think, or plan, or process, there is no managing going on.

Here is what my dream conference would look like:

  1. Speakers on big screens – What is the value of having a big name speaker come personally to a conference?  Have them speak virtually.  Save a lot of money for us and save a lot of time for them.  Come to think of it, what do the big names actually contribute to the conference?  I’m not sure.
  2. Infomercials – Why not have the exhibitors do infomercials at breaks in the programs? Anyone can make a video explaining their product. The videos could be available on the conference YouTube Channel for anyone who misses the infomercials and wants to flip through them.
  3. No exhibit hall – I’ve heard so many vendors say they won’t have the budget soon to attend conferences.  How do vendors raise the money to attend conferences, give out goodies and door prizes and sponsor parties? By raising their product price, of course.  When I hear people say “We couldn’t have a conference without the exhibit hall,” I think “I bet we could have a better conference without the exhibit hall.”  No exhibit hall means a lot more time to meet with people I really want to see. No exhibit hall means I don’t have to carry home a bunch of literature I don’t want. No exhibit hall means I don’t have to feel guilty about finding the fastest way from the front of the hall to the coffee stand/food/bar.
  4. Breakouts on demand – I’d like to go to smaller breakout sessions when I want to fit them into my schedule.  If I get into a great discussion with someone, I don’t want to drop it to run to a session, I want to go with the flow.  Breakouts could be constantly running on screens in dedicated rooms, or I could get them on my laptop whenever I was ready for them.
  5. The Unconference – there are several versions of the Unconference, but the version I’ve been exposed to is one where a huge block of time at a conference was completely unprogrammed.  It was the second day of a two-day conference and all throughout the first day, attendees wrote things they wanted to talk about on Post-it notes and stuck them on a big blank wall.  The conference organizers were responsible for combining like ideas, assigning a time and a room and finding a facilitator for the topic.  I came to a conference with a need and my need was met!  Conferences, especially large ones, by necessity must choose topics and book speakers far in advance.  With as fluid as healthcare now is, conferences need to match the fluidity of healthcare to be pertinent.
  6. Networking, networking, networking – What can’t I get ANY other place? A conversation with my peers.  People with different experiences, different perspectives and different ideas.  That’s the best thing I can bring home from a conference.

What does your dream conference look like?

Posted in: A Career in Practice Management, Innovation, Leadership, Memes

Leave a Comment (9) ↓


  1. Anonymous April 5, 2010

    I disagree with a lot of what this article says. I think each individual has their own perception of conferences and I have personally taken away a lot of valuable information from attending various seminars and conferences. I believe it has helped me be a better manager and networking with your colleagues is priceless. I enjoy meeting different vendors and picking up literature on various medical products especially when looking for computer software to take the plunge into EMR. As for late nights and early mornings I believe that is up to the individual on how they want to spend their time at the conference. No one forces anyone to stay up late. I think this article gives associations and conferences a bad name who try their very best and work very hard to provide great quality education.

    • Mary Pat Whaley April 5, 2010

      Hi Anonymous,

      I knew when I wrote this that many people would not agree with me as conferences are a much-loved ritual. You may have misunderstood the intent of my article: I am certainly not saying that conferences are useless; I am saying that in their present form they are too expensive and do not bring enough value to me personally. I think the current format of conferences will be forced to change (an example of an organization experimenting with change is MGMA’s virtual conference offered last year) as the world changes – budget cuts, new technology, and time pressures will all bear on face-to-face conferences.

      I agree with you that the networking is priceless and say so in my article. I think much more networking is needed as it so very precious. Instead of a rigid schedule with a minimum of networking and a maximum of on-site speakers, why not have a minimum of on-site speakers and much more networking?

      I also have been the beneficiary of lots of great information gleaned from conferences over the years, but the current format for me is stagnant.

      Thanks so much for commenting.

      Best wishes,

      Mary Pat

  2. Meredith Gould April 6, 2010

    Not steppin’ on my toes, Mary Pat. I agree with what you’ve written, which leads me to believe we could create a super dreamy dream conference!

    • Mary Pat Whaley April 6, 2010

      You’re on! Let’s do it. Remember, it’s the second person who is the real leader, Meredith.

      Mary Pat

  3. Adrian Segar April 7, 2010

    Mary Pat – I’m on your side! You might want to take a look at my new book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love which describes the why and how of putting on events that are a lot like you’ve described.

    If you have influence with folks who put on events who would like to create the kind of conference you & I describe, let me know if I can help””that’s what I love to do these days!

    • Mary Pat Whaley April 7, 2010

      Hi Adrian,

      I just found a hidden treasure map and the X is on your book! I am buying it and based on the sample chapter on your site, I am anticipating a very good read.

      I definitely want to work with you – I’ll be in touch (a funny saying for the digital world:))

      Best wishes,

      Mary Pat

  4. Jen April 27, 2010

    I 100% agree!!! I am newer to the field and have attended 2 conferences and have to say that I didn’t take away as much as I had hoped for the money. Not too mention that sometimes you just can’t attend and it seems to be an “Oh well, so sad for you. You’re peers that were able to now know something you don’t” kind of attitude. The field is bringing in a lot of young professionals that have young children and may not have the time to break away for a conference out-of-town. So, virtual would be awesome. Thanks Mary Pat for posting my wish list! 🙂